Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sole Man *

“Watch out, he’s got a gun!” a desperate voice called out.

POP-POP. The gunman took down two brawny bouncers at the fast food restaurant before most of us 143 patrons in Nathan’s eatery on Times Square even realized that fictional, vicarious T.V. and movie violence had just vanished as the gunman barged in the front door and opened fire to give us all an immediate lesson in the actual reality of violence. The lives of 143 people and the hundreds, perhaps thousands of interconnected people in their lives changed forever in a matter of seconds by a Sole Man firing a legally registered pistol.

As the shouting and guttural screaming out of the names of loved ones began, most patrons ran away from the entrance where the gunman indiscriminately fired the 9mm pistol into the terrified crowd. I had to watch. I don’t know why. Perhaps I watched too many Western movies as a kid and truly believed you could “duck a bullet.” I overturned a table, for imagined protection I suppose. My 20 to 25 foot proximity to the killer allowed our eyes to lock after the third shot was fired into the crowd. As we gazed into one another’s eyes my thoughts sharply moved to how a person could be so desperate that mass murder in a hamburger joint seem like a good way to answer his problems. I can’t get my head around why this is happening. Learning later that he was an unemployed Civil Engineer did not help me understand. All I know is that his eyes were not intimidating. If anything, they were just sad and desperate.

Suddenly he broke our gaze, moved the gun’s barrel from me, just to the left, and shot the face off of the man standing at my right shoulder. He proceeded to empty the clip. Five people were killed and four were wounded. Certainly, their deaths and injuries are a tragedy, however, I sometimes think of the fact that no one will ever have the slightest idea of how many other people’s lives were also forever changed by this single act committed by a Sole Man in a single moment of time. So much change brought by one person.

In my case, another Sole Man, the massacre has been a part of who I am since 10:30 p.m., December 30th, 1978. Due to the fact that I let the horrific images fester, I have been both disabled and enabled since those few moments. My life has been one of nightmares, false perceptions, and mostly, feelings of victimization and vulnerability. However, the events perpetuated by Frederick Remings on that December night also provided me with an understanding of a part of the culture in which I live that is certainly not available in books or sociological journals. I am an Ethnographic Sociologist, by profession, a believer in Participant Observation, but this research was not academic, it was traumatic to the bone. It is still a part of my life in February of 2011. It is part of who I am.

Today, as I watch the media images of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians packing the central square of Cairo, I once again begin thinking about numbers and change, which of course got me to thinking about Frederick Remings and the 1978 killings and massive consequences the act or acts of a Sole Man can have on an untold of and un-thought of number of people. I was thinking that if one person can have such an impact on changing the lives of people, why is it so difficult for hundreds of thousands of people to bring about change? Personally I think they will. But then as I look through my “Thought Mirror”, the reverse image supports my original idea of the potential of the Sole Man, or woman, and change. President Hosni Mubarak has had a nearly incomprehensible influence on millions of Egyptians as well as people throughout the world during his thirty years of dictatorial rule of such a sensitive geo-political country. It is also true that I am only looking at half of the Disco Ball of my culture.

I also think of Sole Men such as Mahatma Gandhi and the hundreds and hundreds of other Sole Men and Sole Women that do great things for great numbers of humanity. It is truly astonishing when great changes come to large numbers of people, such as the break-up of the Soviet Union or the end of apartheid, but I will leave that one to the political scientists and historians. So, here is my big question; “Why are there so few Gandhi’s and Mother Theresa’s and seemingly so many Frederick Remings?” Maybe we only hear of the latter because it sells papers and keeps media ratings up, but maybe there is another reason worth examining. Although I am a “more than young” sociologist, I don’t have a clue as to the answer. Do you have any thoughts on the matter? I hope so because none of us know when life will become more complicated than deciding what to buy next of what flavor of Ben and Jerry’s works best for the Munchies. So, what do you think? If you want to kick this idea around a bit, I would love to hear your thoughts. But keep in mind that I don’t have any answers, just experiences. After all, I am just a “Sole Man.”

*The use of the term “Soul Man” in this blog is a literary choice and is in no way intended to diminish the significant contributions “Sole Women” have made and continue to make in human cultures.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Enlightenment at Lower Latitudes

Life’s toughest questions are often answered in the most the unlikely places. This is one reason I love being here in the Caribbean. It is life on a human scale. For example, at these lower latitudes every sunset provides a rare moment of enlightenment and opportunity known as a Green Flash. If atmospheric conditions are just perfect, as the orange orb plops down past the sea’s horizon line, a Green Flash may burst up from the string of that horizon line for the slightest of moments. Every evening, the sun when unobscured, provides the possibility in every person’s mind that a wonderous enlightenment may occur. I have been extremely fortunate to see four Green Flashes in my 50 plus trips to the Caribbean and every Green Flash aroused an endorphine-induced rush that filled my heart with pure bliss. Last night, near sunset I scorched my retinas for ten minutes as I stared westward from Snagg’s beach here on the north shore of Carriacou. The sun descends fast, so you keep your eyes glued. Tonight the magical moment, which often forecasts awareness and and enlightenment could appear, conditions looked right. Closer, closer, now down … no! Not tonight. Perhaps tomorrow.
“No problem mahn. No wohrry, Ahlain. Dat’s ahl yu need tu rememba’ Ahlain. No problem mahn," Snaggy softly said.

Just three words. No need for a Green Flash tonight. I just received my enlightenment. “Jus’ tree wohds.” My best friend in the Caribbean, Cuthbert Snagg, has just blindsided me once again with a brillant take on life. Since the moment Snaggy uttered those words, I cannot stop thinking how much meaning can be squeezed from this three-word nugget of wisdom. I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe that everything that happens, does so for a reason. We just have to be aware. In a blink I knew exactly why Cuthbert enlightened my mind at this moment, lifting tons of mental weight that has been compressing my shoulders for three years, since my cancer era. It is what I called the “when to go dilemma.”
Contemplating leaving my worklife after 43 years is so difficult because my work place is my place of belonging, my place of acceptance and caring, even of being honored. It is my specific place in the world, and a big chunk of my personal identity. The decision has always been an emotional, gut-wrenching experience – up until now!

There were always two issues. The first is that I limited myself to a single view of the dilemma. I was looking through a single lens at the issue. I forgot that the world is a Disco Ball comprised of multiple mirrors. I had only been looking through a single reflector.

The second issue is that I and many other people in their 60’s see the situation as the “End” of something. Please people, let’s spin the Disco Ball! This transition is not the End, it is the Beginning!
“Ahlain, yu use de wrong wohd, mahn,” Snaggy enlightened me causually from his beach chair.”It noht be ‘Re-Tirement,’ it be ‘Re-Hirement.’ No problem mahn, jus’ tink dat way.” Cuthbert concluded, his voice filled with self assurance and confidence.

Cuthbert, you Kyak (Carriacouian) Einstein. You enlightened human Green Flash. You saw the human side of my dilemma, and distilled the solution into three simple words, ‘no problem mahn.”

“It is suddenly as clear as the sea and as exciting as a Green Flash.” I responded to Cuthbert. Leaving my job, regardless of seniority, frees me to reinvent myself, like Cher or Madonna, but in a more personally meaningful way. I can be whatever or whomever I want to be. I am now in a toystore or opportunities. I have gained freedom through enlightenment and Snaggy knew it all along. All I had to do was ask and be aware. Watch out people, I have a heap of ideas and the Green Flash may be headed your way. No problem mahn.

Hillsborough, Carriacou
West Indies

Friday, December 17, 2010

Roadside Blessings

It is roughly 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve of 1994, and I am walking on an extremely dark, pot-holed street in Kingstown, on the island of St. Vincent, in the southern reaches of the Caribbean. I am in the “don’t walk there at night if you are a tourist” part of the city. A winter thunderstorm is producing enough water that the side of the roadway is a riverbed occasionally lit up by a flash of lightning.

I have just been verbally neutered by my soon-to-be-ex companion of three years and am reeling with unrelieved anger and rage with no way to escape. Emotionally dazed, I left the guesthouse in which we are staying because I simply do not know what else to do but to start walking into the night. I don’t care that what I am doing is dangerous and quite stupid. I just don’t care. As I am stumbling along the heavily trafficked street, I start tearing up. Here I am, 48 years old, in a dangerous stretch of a town 2,000 miles from where I live, dodging cars and scared to death. Why am I once again miserable and alone and crying on Christmas Eve? What is wrong with me? Most people seem so happy this time of year. Am I a huge loser or is everyone else a huge liar? No, it is my problem. I am just one of those jerky guys with a good job and a life that is otherwise as screwed up as the situation in which I now find myself. I just want to beat the crap out of someone, or get the crap kicked out of me. I just don’t care.

Suddenly, from the bushes above the road, a tall dark form leaps directly in front of me, blocking my way. I can barely make out the details of his body from the headlights of the fast moving cars and mini-vans speeding by. The passing headlights reveal a very rough-looking, down-on-his-luck man, but I cannot quite see his facial features. I am able to see a bucket in his left hand however my eyes are strongly pulled toward the 24-inch machete or cutlass in his right hand.

“I need mohny, mahn, I noht eaht nuttin’ in tree dahys, give me sum mohny, jus’ tree dollah, dat’ ahl mahn. Cohme ohn mahn,” he screamed above the roar of the downpour.

My North American psyche takes over. Maybe because I am emotionally spent or because I’m just a scared rabbit, in either case, every milligram of adrenaline in my body rushed into the fight or flight or wet your pants mode as I am certain that this desperate man is going to hack my head off and put it in the bucket before he took the few bucks in the pocket of my cargo shorts. I can only think that at least my miserable relationship will be over!

As this outrageous thought flashes through my head, I realize the irony and absurdity of this whole picture. My mind clears enough to realize that if this guy were a maniacal killer, my head would already be peeking out of that bucket dangling from his left hand. Instead, we just stared at one another for what seemed like a minute. We just stood in the pouring rain and stared at one another. It was during this minute that everything shifted.

“My nahme be Elbert,” he half-cried, “ahn I won’ try tu foohl yu, mahn. I hahve been tu prisohn. I be ah teacha’ befoh dat but I mahke sohme big mistahke and dey puts me in jail foh five yeahs.” But I no problem now, I leahn da’ way ah de Lohrd.”

He stood there in front of me, as if I am a judge, not a jerk. Standing in the darkness, a number of cars passed in both directions, illuminating our features somewhat clearly. We look one another over. It is weird; we are roughly the same size, have the same glazed over deranged looking eyes, and have similar beards and curly hair. It is like a surreal mirror has been created.

At this moment I do something I never do. I reach into my pocket and pulled out a $10 EC bill (about $4.00 USD). I never give beggars money . . . and I still haven’t.

“Here Elbert, Merry Christmas.” You would have thought I just gave him the keys to my Miata mid-life crisis mobile.

“Oh-oh tanks mahn, I know yu goht de goohd heaht,” he says as he approaches me to clasp hands Caribbean style.

This prompts me to perform another original act as I say, “God bless you Elbert.” I wonder for a split second why I said it until the destitute man in the torn and ragged clothing from the slums of Kingstown, St. Vincent, freaks me out when he replies:

“But He have alreahdy bless ahl ah we.”

. . . . . . . . . . . .

“Compliments ah de seahson tu ahl.” May you find blessings in unexpected places.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Overworked? Meet Gregor Hippolyte

“Yeah mahn, we be ‘Wahlk an’ Wuk,’ no plague by ambishion, no enslav’ by time,” the tall dreadlocked man calls out as he and his partner approach me. I have just finished creating my beach nest, but I’m always up for a couple of local island guys trying to scam me and depart with a bit of my cash. You can learn a lot about people when money is involved.

“I be Gregor Hippolyte an’ dis be Rasta Robbie. We be ‘Wahlk an’ Wuk’.” The two men knuckle bump and belly laugh with delight before plunking their bags of mystery down in the sand. Both men are dressed in the African colors and sport years of hair growth. Robbie fires up a doobie and offers me a toke.

Gregor Hippolyte and his “bruddah,” Rasta Robbie, craft pieces of rough cut midnight black coral into astonishingly beautiful bracelets, necklaces and rings to sell to bewildered tourists here on St. Lucia’s gorgeous stretch of north shore beach. The twin peaks of the Pitons get all the post card attention, but to my way of thinking, the beauty of the island is found in the spirit of the people. These two men survive by consciously using their innovative and artistic talents to transform elements of their natural surroundings into beautiful art. They are non-stop in hustling their works. They literally walk all day as they work, thus “Walk and Work.” We hit it off totally irie (good) and we agree to meet tomorrow, early.

I am intrigued by the paradox of “no plagued by ambition, no enslaved by time” that Gregor repeats about every third statement while his fingers move in frantic motion transforming a jagged coral stem into a graceful figure. It appears a blatant contradiction. I am fascinated by the effectiveness of their awareness, ingenuity, and persuasive language skills. This is why I decide I will do a little research. I return each morning just before daybreak to the tiny hideaway cove to lime with my two new friends. Actually, our lime is mobile as “nuttin’ stop Wahlk an’ Wuk.” They are perpetual motion machines. I am trying to find out how these men can work so feverishly from dawn to dusk and not feel “enslaved by time?” Additionally, Gregor’s artistic skills are not the beach junk one usually finds being sold on Caribbean beaches. This is gallery-level work, and it is all done “on the fly.”

. . . . . . . . .

I came to St. Lucia to get away from the numbing unconsciousness of frantic work, computers, phones, meetings, endless grading, and “to do” lists that are never completed. I come from an immigrant family with a “work until you drop” mentality. However as a second-generation son of immigrants, I never felt the embrace of my Italian or German cultural heritage. I am not captured by the immigrant joy of “getting” to live in the U.S.A. Nonetheless, starting at age 12 I have spent my life scrambling for my piece of the American pie. Yet all the while I never feel like I am doing enough. Grazie mamma.

I thought that for seven sweet days on St. Lucia I could escape my “never enough” work-aholism. Not so. My maxi-work ethic followed me here as I am more than eager to “Walk and Talk” everyday, sun up to sundown, to find out how Gregor and Robbie combine an incredible work ethic, dangerous diving, creating beautiful artwork, and at the same time live stress free lives. It isn’t simply, “Because they live in paradise.” Having lived in the Caribbean, I know that being a tourist and living on an island are completely different experiences. Unless you have a huge chunk of change, island life is hard, very hard. Most Caribbean islands would be called “Third World.” A 50% unemployment rate is not uncommon. I keep having this intuitive “vibe” that Gregor and Robbie’s fierce Afro centrism has something to do with this island mystery. I can’t stop being a Sociologist, even on Spring Break!

. . . . . .

After a few days, I ask Gregor where he lives. He simply sang a Bob Marley line, “Cold ground was my bed last night, rock was my pillow too,” and laughed with a full grin. “Where do you eat” gets my favorite response, “Ah Ahlan, dem fried plantains buhddy, mahke yu finga’ lickin’!”

“Dat be if we sell we wuk,” Robbie adds with a wickedly zoned-out laugh. Both men grin at one another with ear-to-ear joy as Robbie fires up another “smoke.”
I think that if anyone would be stressed by their work, it is two guys with no home, no way of knowing if they will eat the next day, and free dive 100 feet down into the choppy open sea off a north shore cliff to harvest precious black coral. The paradox fascinates me. I have to know every detail. “How do you free dive so deep?” I ask Gregor.

“Eahsy Ahlan. Firs’ yu swahlas’ a mout’ ful ah cookin’ oil, den ohf wit yu pahnts, stick de sawblade in yu underwears an’ dive an’ cut. Me fahtha’ teahch me an’ he fahtha’ teahch he.” Gregor and Robert look at one another and repeat in unison, “an’ de deepah yu go, de dahka yu geht.” Again, they break into laughter. I am clueless. Is this a description or is this a metaphor?

“Walhk and Wuk, dohn stop fuh nuttin’,” Gregor forcefully re-emphasizes.
“Why is it this way?” I ask Robbie as he is hyper inhaling. Gregor, who never smokes allowing him to dive deeper, uses Robbie’s prolonged inhale to respond in heartfelt sincerity, “Cause Ahlan, yu got ta’ live clean an’ let yu works be seen. Dat’s why we here ohn dis eahrt.” His words dive deep into my head.

“Hard and constant work in order for your works to be seen.” That brings joy? It certainly doesn’t work that way for me. I, and most people I know, work their bums off to show their best effort, yet most everyone I know is constantly stressed out. Every day of the school year, including weekends, I pour over minute details for class presentations, create assignments, and grade papers until my eyes blur and yet I never feel that I have time to do all that I am suppose to do. How do Robert and Gregor do it? It is not by toking up and walking the beach, too simple. They are extremely joyful, enlightened men as passionate about their work as they are proud of their African heritage. But I am also passionate about my work, so why am I not at peace with myself? In my work culture I feel like I am driven by an external force, waiting for me to mess up, and always reminding me that more is never enough. And by no means am I alone in this perception.

The problem is that this perception has become the norm. Literally, everyone I work with, faculty, staff, students, and administrators continually uses the phrase, “I am burnt out.” To Gregor and Robert “burnt out” is when a “spliff be finish.” For us it means we are diving far past 100 feet and we never feel we have enough black coral.
We computer-dependent, smart phone fanatics in North America are not clever enough to see that we are literally killing ourselves with our work lives. Where is the passion, pride, and inner peace of Gregor and Robbie? Why don’t we emulate the internally driven work lives of these men? The mystery remains, except for this intuitive thought I have about pride in heritage leading to internal pride in “our works.” My hypothesis is simply that if more of us are consciously engaged in what we do well, and are honored for “letting our works be seen,” would that not assist in ending this madness of our present work model and allow each of us to see who we are at our core level? But self-reflection has been replaced with emails, calendar pop ups, f-booking and tweets.

There is a Spanish proverb that goes, “Those in a hurry, arrive first at the grave.” The proverb illuminates the sad reality that overloaded North American work lives impede a person’s creativity, induces physical and mental health problems, and steals our joy, which is a human entitlement.

Hangin’ with Gregor Hippolyte and Rasta Robbie made me think about one of my favorite books, The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. While re-reading it I came across a most relevant passage, no doubt a wake up call.

There was a man who disliked seeing his own footprints and his shadow. He decided to escape from them, and he began to run. But as he ran along more footprints appeared, while his shadow easily kept up with him. Thinking that he was going too slowly, he ran faster and faster without stopping, until he finally collapsed from exhaustion and died.

Benjamin Hoff’s runner lived in a place, as do many people I know, where an unconscious life is driven by the perception of external forces. Gregor and Robert remind for me to wake up, to “Wahlk and Wuk,” and to let my “wuks” be seen. This is how I live my passion.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Construct Reality Then Howl at the Moon

“Mushroom tea at midnight. Mushroom tea, jus’ five minute lef’ evahbody,” Lennox, the lead vocalist shouts to the packed crowd just before his band, “Blue Haze” busted into a rough cover of the Jimmy Cliff iconic favorite, “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” I don’t miss the irony. Half of our mass of humanity is shifting, shuffling, bumping, and winin’ our rusty North American bums at the Bomba Shack this February full moon night have not had any “schrooms” for as long as we could remember, but that’s not surprising.

I know many people who believe that everyone in the Caribbean do nothing but party. This is extremely misleading. However, people of the Caribbean definitely know how to, and when to, Pah-teh. Tonight is one of those times.

A brief jaunt from unknown Carrot Bay, on the quiet north shore of Tortola, British Virgin Islands (BVI), is the very well known, anything-but-quiet, Bomba Shack. Bomba insists that besides hard drugs, anything goes at The Shack. Mostly what goes are tourists’ inhibitions and women’s undies.

The Bomba Shack is a product of the sea. Perched just above the water’s edge at Capoon Bay, what passes for walls are pieces of driftwood and old crates. Anything the sea throws up Bomba uses for construction. Inside, sea junk is either hung up or becomes a tabletop or bench. It is normal in the Caribbean to re-use items. What is not normal here are the discarded bras and panties that cover the interior walls, making the Shack look like a surreal Victoria’s Secret shop. One sign entices, “Free Bomba Tee Shirt for any lady who takes her top off.” By the look of The Shack, many ladies have Bomba Tee shirts. Any wall space not displaying frilly garb is plastered with “wise sayings.” Slogans range from the psychological to the anatomical. I am sure you have seen such “wisdom,” usually on public restroom walls.

As a special treat each full moon, the infamous host offers up, in addition to live music, gallons of booze, large plates of food, and a sand dance floor . . . hallucinogenic tea served at the stroke of midnight. This is Bomba’s Full Moon Party. Once a local eccentricity, now, thanks to the Internet, it is a world-class occasion.

The “Magic Tea” is brewed in a large cauldron across the road from the seaside shack and is tended to by Bomba’s cousin Leroy. Locally grown psilocybin mushrooms provide the magic, and Bomba provides the cups. In the BVI, it is not technically illegal to possess mushrooms, only to sell them, so Bomba sells $10 cups and offers the tea for free. Local police, always in attendance, do not object. No problem. A healthy dose of exhibitionism usually follows. This is the spot for the very straight to get a little not so straight, without legal consequences. Reckless abandon without the wreck. Why do you think people call the Caribbean paradise?

At exactly midnight, Lennox stops Blue Haze mid song and screams into the mic, “It be twelve, de tea be ready, time foh de tea.” Hundreds of us scramble, limp and hobble with our $10 plastic cups to Leroy’s boilng pot of our remembered reality of 1960’s freedom. We are not so much trying to relive our pasts, as recapture a few moments of “insightful” reality that we think we remember.

Our “abnormal” behavior takes place in what is called a “situational norm.” We psilocybin tea patrons are the same middle class, god-fearing, value-seeking, work-obsessed, materialistic, suburbanites from North America and Europe, who would be the first to condemn “drug use” back home. We are the first in line for Cousin Leroy to ladle out a few ounces of “magic tea” because this is a “perfect storm” for our situational norm breaking. We have created a constructed reality of bad as good, with no penalties. Can life get any better? Probably not, but I also know there is fault in the construction of this reality.

My guess is that all of us have rationalized participating in “abnormal activity” because it is a “special” situation. As a sociologist, I ask, “Why do we choose to be, or not to be involved?” As a First Wave Boomer, I can tell you exactly why I am first in line for several rounds of Leroy’s ladled liquid. I want to enjoy reckless abandonment without the wreck. I believe we humans know that bad is sometimes good, and once a month, that is possible at the Bomba Shack. However, this is only my mental construct (constructed reality) of a situational norm.

After 43 years of teaching and studying human behavior, I know that as we mature, engage in life, collect experiences and beliefs, we each construct of our own realities of how the world works. Constructed reality is like being fitted with a pair of pink contact lenses at birth and unknowingly going through life seeing everything in pink, while everyone else is seeing every other color in a rainbow.

Constructed Reality has everything to do with our perceptions of the world, and is expressed through the words we use, how we use those words and our interpretations of the words of others. Known as the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, the viewpoint states that every cultural group and each individual perceives a different construct of reality. What does that tell you? According to the Hypothesis, if there is no word for something, there is no something. Or to put it another way, we construct our reality by the words we use.

. . . . . . .

Several days ago, I am in my very “not private” private office in Joyce 200 as classes changed. Two young men, leaving a class from down the hall, were having a brief but highly revealing exchange. Student One: “So what the hell was he talking about?” Student Two: “I don’t have an effing clue, I was talking with my girl friend,” as he pocketed his smart phone.

I have not heard these mental constructs since last fall semester – around the same time, four weeks into the term. What am I to take from my perception of their perceptions? It certainly is not what we who teach, administer, and support Champlain students want students to perceive. This is not the constructed reality we are striving to attain.

Throughout my 43 years of college teaching I have been fascinated with the thinking and decisions that college students make. Many of my colleagues (at three different colleges or universities) are often baffled by why students think and behave in certain ways. I believe my colleagues fail to realize the situational norms that are constructed during a student’s college experience. Anyone at any age will “drink the mushroom tea,” if it is a Full Moon Party at the Bomba Shack. Creating a negative, difficult reality in which to live, is a trap that many of us fall into. I believe the two men walking down the hall have fallen into the trap of constructing a negative reality in which to spend the present. This is so unfortunate when you consider the potential of what a positive, engaging reality you can wring from this college, from your daily experience to your future goals. Champlain College is a collecting pool of dedicated professionals that offer vast resources of which each of you has unusual access. If you have attended other institutions you know I speak the truth. What I heard from the two gentlemen in the hallway is a wasteful mental construct.

I have picked up a few ideas in four decades of teaching that could be helpful. 1) You likely decided to like or dislike each of your classes on the first day. The longer you hold a negative and non-engaged reality, the more difficult it will be for you to learn anything in that class. As you work against your learning by cutting classes and not participating, the more negative your constructed reality of the course will be. By week four a feeling of never-ending repetition can set in. 2) The “parole” from parental oversight may open a world of “situational norms” that excite, feel great, and comply perfectly with certain hormones that are plentiful in your body at this point in your life journey. Situational norms easily become institutionalized, as several nights a week become Jello nights. This can easily become your constructed reality for college life. 3) By contrast, you can use your college career as a guide for choosing the situational norms you partake in-or not. And if so, when and where you partake in them. Easy? No. Doable? Yes.

How you handle situational norms and your constructed realities will determine your success or failure. Check out the number or percentage of students who enter college in the U.S. with the number or percentage that graduate. This is why mom, dad, grams, and grand pop can howl at the moon once a month but must contain those situational norms to “special occasions.”

A closing point, however you wish to play the situational norm game, and the reality you construct, remember that it is all in your head, and no one knows that better than Bomba.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Many Me's

Schizophophrenia! Hell, that is just the trailer to my flick. I have a sizeable community of characters in my head, a posse of misfits and do-fits that seem to get along pretty well and pop out whenever they feel like doing so. Want to swap lies with a Caribbean pirate, “you slimy sea dog,” I’m your guy. Want to have tea with a Brit Twit and discuss the demise of the “Em-pire!” I have Sir Percy Dovetonsils at your convenience in Joyce 200, hoping some of you will drop by. Some people believe that enjoying the different mirrors of their mental disco ball of life is not healthy. Well, tell that to my Rick Ekcarts, Caribbean cultural explorer for 40 years.

Of course, Rick would be the first to admit that there are days when life can get a bit grainy, perplexing, and somewhat lonely. That is because we forget all of the “me’s” that reside inside of us. Back in 1997, I had been in the Caribbean for six months, the last five weeks of which were spent on a solo exploration of many fascinating cultures. The problem was that six weeks of being an outsider, isolated from my friends seemed like an eternity. In the uncertainty of my adventures, I had ignored all my “me’s.”

. . . . . . . .

Ladies and gentlemen, in preparation for our take-off would you please make sure that your seat belts are fastened securely, that all carry-on items are stowed in the luggage compartments above you or tucked under the seat in front of you. All seats must be in their full upright and locked position. Caribbean Island Airlines once again thanks you for choosing Caribbean for all your travel needs.

As I squeeze most of the blood from my lower body tightening my seat belt, I turn my head just far enough to the left to make eye contact with what the British might call a “Stunnah.” The professionally primped woman sitting just across the aisle in this tiny hot plane freezes my mind. I smile and give a slight eye roll, implying the multitude of times we have heard the flight attendant mantra. She smiles in response making my head spin. I am unable to speak. Suddenly she breaks the awkward pause, “So, who are you?”

“That depends, “ I reply. (What kind of a dorky reply was that? Am I in 8th grade?)

“On what?” she puzzles.

In my nervousness I blubber, “On who you ask, and when you ask them.”

She squints an eye that I interpret as curiosity. I launch my riff:

“To my neighbor, I am a funny guy,
To a bookstore owner, I am an author,
To a roadside observer, I am a motor scooter sidecar enthusiast,
To a short person, I am a tall guy,
To a macho man, I am a weenie.

To my wife, I am Ali,
To my sister, I am a big dog head,
To my brother-in-law, I’m Big Al,
To one sister-in-law, I am a ton of fun,
To another sister-in-law, I am a jerk.

To the payroll officer at Champlain College, I am a nine-digit number,
To wait staff, I am a good tipper,
To a chef, I am a vegetarian,
To a Burlington, Vermont bike path regular, I am a bicyclist,
To a cancer doctor, I am a miracle man.

To current students, I am Professor Stracke,
To 20,000 former students, I am a Sociologist who thinks 43 years is still a new career,
To a social observer, I am a tad flamboyant,
To a conservative, I am a socialist,
And to myself, I am a bit of an amnesiac.”

“What was the question again?” I ask.

She abruptly turns her head and looks out the window. She doesn’t say another word.

. . . . . . . . .

Upon reflection, two things are obvious; 1) I am a jerk, but I am old enough to enjoy my Jerkatudeness, and 2) All of us are many persons, given the situation. It is a fact that you will become many people as you gain experiences and understanding. Your college years are about many things, not the least of which is to discover your Concept of Self, who you are, what you are, who you are not and what you are not. This is the perfect time in your life to explore how you are going to intertwine in this wacked out world. There are no limits on you except your own. You are your only obstacle.

Reggae music icon, Jimmy Cliff put it straight 35 years ago, “You can get it if you really want it, . . . but you must try, you must try, you must try.” ‘Nuff said.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Brain of Change

“Mr. Alan, wahke up deahr, I need yu blood.”

It is three in the morning and Jeneka, my personal nurse who has held onto her native Jamaican dialect for two decades while working as a nurse in the States, had just drained me around midnight, but that is the way they keep you alive after a Bone Marrow Transplant here at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC.

“Are all of you vampires or do you just like me?” I responded. Jeneka let out a hearty West Indian laugh. Then she sat on the side of my bed.

“I been werkin’ wit cansha patients foh goin’ on twenty yeahs now, ahnd I do declare dat yu gone ta’ make it sweetheahrt, yu is filled wit hope ahn dats’ what it takes. Yu be bahck up dere in Vermont teachin’ like a fool in no time.” We smiled at one another. She soothingly rubbed my left arm as she stood, gathered her samples, instruments and medical waste and went to leave the room.

“Now yu git a little sleep dahlin’,” she suggested as she silently left my Sterile Room. I touched my arm, still warm from her unstated compassion.
. . . . . . . . . .

As many of you may know I am now in my 14th month of my post-Bone Marrow Transplant, and except for numerous weird physical conditions brought on by the freight car loads of meds, toxic and otherwise, the specialists have pumped, pricked, and plunged into me in the past two years, I am on a very respectable trek to recovery. I have a certainty of hope that I will return to the classroom in the fall to play with many more young adult minds. Through forty years of college teaching I have bumbled and stumbled my way to the key of teaching. You teach what you need to learn. And what I have learned is that hope and perseverance will lead to whatever goal you set for yourself.

I would say that 50% of such a recovery is mental. I would also say that most of the legions of Doc’s, nurses, and techies I have met in one circumstance or another would agree. Anyone working directly with cancer patients for any length of time will tell you that the patient’s attitude has an enormous effect on whether they walk out the front door of the cancer hospital, or if they are carried out the back door, largely depends on the patient’s attitude and expectations. Even the most gifted oncology specialists will agree, but for years they have not known why this is the case. They had no way of quantifying one’s attitude, thus they were caught in their “Scientific Method,” with a mystery. Cancer professionals intuitively and anecdotally know attitude has a great deal to do with recovery and /or survival, but their methods of “knowing the truth” are solemnly wed to their belief in the Scientific Method.

Finally, finally, we have the technology to scientifically prove what many of us cancer survivors know. Let me explain, and I promise you that you will not be bored. And if you are bored with what I have to say, well, certain Aboriginal groups in the Australian outback have a saying, “Not all breathing people are alive.”

Let’s make this real for you. Think about where our world and nation are at this present moment in time. We are toxic, twisted, tangled, confused, confounded and scared. However, and let me shout out a huge however, that we also have hope. The election has given us all hope. We have, for the second time in my lifetime, a nation of hope, a community of hope. Granted, the dreams of the Boomers did not work out as planned in the 1960’s, but that does not diminish or isn’t even relevant to the present massive outpouring of hope that is evident, not just in the States, but throughout the world. And remember that the U.S. is a nation of hope. The U.S. has always been power-driven by communities of hope. It is a major element of our Cultural Ethos. This is the American Dream.

Now, let’s make this even more real and applicable for you by integrating these current events with my own personal story.

With my beloved wife Lynda off at work or on her Mac Book most of the time, my defense against my mind turning into over-cooked spinach, mid-western style, is to learn new things, spend time in self-reflection and meditation, and to constantly remind myself of the fact that nothing stays the same, nothing. Not the slightest of which are our own brains, bodies, feelings, emotions, interactions and what we perceive as being reality.

I have spent a huge amount of time during my “cancer era” studying the human brain. We all know our brains are literally incomprehensibly amazing and complex. However, you may not know that research in brain science is making giant steps in putting together some nearly unbelievable findings. The most exciting part is that these findings are so hard for us to imagine because we have been trapped in a paradigm of the brain as just another organ in the body. We now know that the brain is an integral part of the entire package, and that we, the user of that brain, have the power to control and even change our own brain in the way that it functions, produces emotions, and learns. Within the very recent past, experts have empirically proven a person’s ability to change the path and patterns of neural transmissions within one’s own brain. To me, this knowledge has unbounded potential. I am over the moon with hope and “irie vibes” as Jeneka might say, and you should be as well.

Think about it. Is your cup ½ empty or ½ full? Is the world a joyous and wondrous place, or is bickering, hatred, brutality, and war a given? Will you have a “good” life, or are you just another bio-carbon unit mucking around for a few decades only to decompose into a small pile of organic matter? You know what is even more exciting than the new First Family and our community of hope for a different way of living in this world? Given what science now knows about the brain, we have the power to construct the reality of the rest of our lives. We have the potential to be whatever we want to be and the scientific community, for the first time since empirical proof for seeking reality came into existence; the skeptical hard scientists believe it as well.

Over the past 2½ years, the 1,000’s of meds choked, poked and dripped into me sent me to wander around many playgrounds of reality. Hoping not to insult or marginalize my band of iridescent bright blue monkeys that sometime keep me company by running at top speed around the top of my room endlessly chattering away in one such reality, I have come to realize what indigenous peoples have based their cultural components on for tons of time, one irrefutable fact: the universe is not “out there.” Reality lies between your ears. However you want to live, whatever you want to do, is limited only by the “mental cage,” that culture fervently attempts to embed in our brain’s neural transmissions, through myths and rhetoric, and perpetuates through ethnocentric and myopic visions of the rest of the world. But this is a process that ignores what we now know to be true. The truth of how you will live, create, and be ~ in your life ~ is in your brain. What you do to construct your reality is totally up to you. Think about it. Think about the community of hope that is taking place. And most importantly, think about your role and where you want to be in the community.

Buddha, in the 6th Century, cast the idea as follows: “ Be a light unto yourself.” What I take from all of this is what my late father unendingly screeched at me, “Damnit’ boy, (my dad always called me boy), how many times you got ta’ get hit upside the head with a 2x4 before you get it?” Obviously, considering my 62 years on the planet, it took me a while.